But there is one glaring difference. Sonu’s dark hair is closely cropped, while Manjinder’s would fall past his shoulder, if it weren’t for the turban wrapped tightly around his head. And in Richmond Hill, surprisingly it is Sonu, not Manjinder, who is labeled an outcast, and the 18-year-old is acutely aware of this fact.
The friends both follow the Sikh religion, a faith with more than 21 million followers, making it the fifth-largest religion worldwide. Adherents are forbidden to cut any hair on their bodies. Instead, the men wrap it inside a patka, or turban, and secure it in a knot on the top of their heads. This is a visible tribute to their maker, an outward symbol of the perfection of God’s creation. It also makes them easily recognizable as Sikhs, and, to some Sikh youth, that visibility is precisely the problem.
“I’m certain I will grow my hair out and wear a turban,” Sonu said. “But not now – maybe when I’m old, like 30.”
Sonu and Manjinder embody a larger tension within the Sikh community – the internal dilemma among children to remain true to their faith while still fitting in with their peers. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, some Sikhs simply do not want to stand out. Incidents of harassment and discrimination towards Sikhs students have increased dramatically since then, as they are frequently mistaken for Arabs, Iranians or Afghans because of their turbans. The problem extends beyond Richmond Hill, a place with the largest concentration of Sikhs in New York, with reports coming from all corners of the United States and in other countries around the globe.
Many Sikhs report the same two fears – physical violence and name-calling. The Sikh Coalition of New York, a community-based advocacy organization, claims that almost half of turbaned students have experienced physical violence in school, and they say this safety issue extends beyond Richmond Hill High School, affecting children across the New York City school system.
The resulting internal dilemma often leads young men to cut their hair, shave their beards and sometimes, shock and disappoint their parents.
“Our religion is really hard to deal with,” said Sonu. “It’s just easier this way.”
In 2007, the Sikh Coalition released the first-ever study documenting bias in New York City schools. The report, “Hatred in the Hallways: A Preliminary Report on Bias Against Sikh Students in New York City’s Public Schools,” found that half of the city’s Sikh students report being harassed because of their identity. For students who attend school in Queens, the number goes up to 65 percent.
Additionally, the study found that “more than 40 percent of students who wear turbans have been subjected to some form of hitting, punching or disrespectful touching of the head,” and nearly one-third of the complaints go unheeded by school officials. While there are no comprehensive studies to quantify harassment in the U.S., incidents of violence and discrimination against Sikhs have been documented across the country in places ranging from Houston to Newark, Chicago to California.
On June 3, a former Richmond Hill High School student put a face on the school violence that Sikh students are enduring. Jagmohan Singh Premi, now 20, filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York against the New York City Department of Education, alleging that the department failed to protect him from violence during school after a fellow student assaulted him. Premi claims that he experienced daily abuse during the 2008-2009 school year, culminating with him being punched in the face after another student tried to remove his patka.
Premi alleges the school system took no action to stop the abuse. Two months before the incident, the Sikh Coalition named Richmond Hill High School as a “problem school” in its report “Making Our Voices Heard: A Civil Rights Agenda for New York City Sikhs.” The report classifies a “problem school” as a place “where Sikh students suffer from a particularly hostile and unwelcoming attitude at the hands of their classmates.” The Sikh Coalition reports that this is the first time a Sikh has filed a lawsuit for harassment suffered in city schools. Officials at Richmond Hill did not respond to an interview request while School’s Chancellor Joel Klein announced that because of the incident, he “ordered the drafting of a new Chancellor’s regulation that incorporates recommendations from the Sikh Coalition.” Klein also requested the school system expand its system of reporting bias-related incidents.
Ashmeet Sahni Kaur, a 25-year-old junior-high science teacher in Little Neck, Queens, said she frequently witnesses this type of violent behavior at school. And because she is a Sikh, she says she too, experiences the negative reaction to her religion.
“My friends always ask why I don’t cut my hair, wax or make eyebrows,” she said. “My brother came from India in 2007, and a lot of places wouldn’t give him a job unless he cut his hair.”
Kaur said her brother, now 19, was prepared to hit the barbershop until she finally talked him out of it – something she often does in her teaching role, she said.
“Sixth-graders face enough issues to begin with, and peer pressure is an enormous problem for Sikh children,” said Kaur.
Name-calling is generally reported as the main form of harassment that students face at school, according to Hardayal Singh, education director of the United Sikhs of New York, an advocacy and humanitarian not-for-profit organization.
“One boy was bullied two or three times a week, called ‘war maniac’ or ‘tomato head’ for his red turban,” said Singh. “He cut his hair and said ‘I look cooler; I was getting teased; I’m stressed and can’t study.’ His parents are shocked.”
While Singh said he is highly concerned with children caving in to peer pressure, he admits it is a natural part of growing up as a Sikh.
“The parents are almost always disappointed, but there is no sense to outcast the child,” he said. “Shortcuts through a tough situation will not work.”
Sonu and Manjinder both endure name-calling, they said.
“They call me ‘bin Laden’, ‘Taliban’, ‘condom-head’, everything,” said Manjinder, who, unlike his friend, said he would never cut his hair because of bullying. “Even though the way Muslims and Hindus tie their turbans is totally different. It’s so stupid.”
“Yeah, they ask him what’s inside his turban – like an orange or a rock,” said Sonu, laughing along with his friend. Sonu said he only occasionally gets called a Muslim.
Still, the 18-year-old is happy to be close-shaven, at least while navigating adolescence.
“After 9-11 I just don’t want to take a chance if someone perceives me as someone else,” Sonu said. “When I feel right or comfortable I will grow my hair, but I don’t know when that will be.”